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Homeless by choice, two Cal Poly students opt for a vehicular lifestyle to save money

Rachel Showalter/KCBX
A look inside Austen Henry's 'home.'

A comprehensive study of the California State University System, released in January, found eleven percent of students were homeless one or more times in 2017. This percentage was slightly higher among San Luis Obispo’s Cal Poly students, at 12.3 percent. Students end up homeless for a number of reasons; the lack of financial resources usually tops the list. But in this story, we meet two Cal Poly students who are choosing to be homeless to save their money for other uses. 

According to the study, student homelessness can be defined as living in a temporary shelter, unsheltered in a place not meant for human habitation, or lacking a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence. 

“I’m a Mechanical Engineering student at Cal Poly and I live in a van,” said Austin Henry.

Henry attends classes and works part time but instead of going home to a permanent residence, he just parks his van and hunkers down for the night. The study would classify him as homeless but, Henry said, his van is his home.

“There were a multitude of factors that prompted me to take on the van-lifestyle but mainly kind of a sense of adventure as far as how I wanted to live my life,” Henry said. “Life kind of lined up to make it advantageous and possible to build out a rig of my own because I built it all myself.”

Henry spent last summer constructing the inside of the van to function, more or less, like a tiny home. He’s got solar panels on the roof, a stocked refrigerator, a sink with running water, and a cook stove that runs on propane. Henry even built himself a lifted bed with shelving and a pull-out desk beneath it.

“[I’m] really, really passionate about woodworking and welding and working on engines so I’ve always had the skills and I’ve been learning more skills as I’ve gone and I just put them all together to do this van build out,” Henry said.

He could afford a permanent place in San Luis Obispo, but living in his van saves him, and his parents, a lot of money.

“They didn’t need to foot the bill for rent this year,” Henry said. “I own essentially my own home. It’s not a conventional home but I don’t have to pay rent so it’s a lot cheaper of a lifestyle to live than the regular apartment lifestyle that a lot of college kids have.”

The only thing Henry’s rig doesn’t have? A bathroom. So he showers at the Cal Poly Recreation Center, which he has full access to as a student. And aside from the initial cost of putting the van together, he only pays for the basic necessities - food, laundry, and gas.

Credit Rachel Showalter/KCBX
Bri Viser says she sometimes struggles to stay warm enough, but is choosing to live in her car to save her money for traveling.

Bri Viser is another homeless student. She recently finished taking classes at Cal Poly and is temporarily living in her car.

“I’m doing it to save money because I’m leaving in May,” Viser said.”If I was gonna be here longer then I would probably invest in a place and that would be worth it to me. I could afford a place and kind of go through my savings but to me my savings are for traveling. They’re not for rent.”

Viser’s lifestyle is much less high-tech than Henry’s. She says everyday activities are more time consuming without a home base and she struggles to stay warm. Viser also says that just general privacy is something she misses.

“If you just want the world to stop and be alone to just think or talk on the phone, people are always around you,” Viser said. “Even if I go in my car, people are walking by. I’m just pretty introverted and I definitely like to cut the world off. Where do I go to be absolutely alone?”

These aren’t the only challenges Viser deals with. She has a small Honda Accord where she sleeps in the back seat but, sometimes, the car can get uncomfortable. So Viser likes to take naps in nearby parks and, she says, passersby are often concerned for her well-being.

“When I’m sleeping outside, people wake me up and they ask if I’m okay,” Viser said. “They think it’s a dead body. Almost every time I’m sleeping outside that happens. They’re like, ‘are you okay? Do you need help?’ I’m like, ‘I’m just napping.’”

Unlike Henry, Viser’s parents are unsupportive of her decision to live in her car. They prefer she be in a safer environment but Viser isn’t interested.

“They were very upset,” Viser said. “They were like just get a place. I kinda just told them that you know I’m not a kid and they can’t really decide any of my choices. They just have to accept them.”

San Luis Obispo’s municipal code bans overnight camping on all city streets and parking lots, a legal dilemma for Viser. Henry said he usually parks in nearby regional and state parks and pays the fee for camping.

Neither plan to make this a permanent lifestyle but, for now, as students, it works for them.

Editor's note: This feature on two students electing to live out of their vehicles in order to save money is just one facet of the complex issue of homelessness among the state's students. Over the coming months, KCBX News will be looking at this issue from a variety of viewpoints and personal experiences.